CAIRO: At least 41 people drowned over the weekend when their boat capsized in the central Mediterranean, the UN said on Wednesday, the latest shipwreck involving migrants fleeing conflict-stricken Libya and seeking better life in Europe.

The UN migration and refugee agencies said in a joint statement that the dead were among at least 120 migrants on a dinghy that left Libya on Feb 18. The shipwreck took place two days later, it said. A commercial vessel rescued the survivors and took them to the Sicilian port town of Porto Empedocle in Italy, they added.

The tragedy started when the dinghy took on water about 15 hours after the migrants embarked on their perilous voyage, the UNHCR said, citing testimonies from survivors. Within hours, at least six people fell into the sea and perished, and two others drowned while attempting to swim to a boat spotted in the distance.

Later, the commercial vessel Vos Triton arrived, and attempted to rescue survivors in what the UNHCR described as a difficult and delicate operation.” Many others died during the rescue operation, it said.

Only one body was recovered, and the missing included three children and four women, one of whom left behind a newborn baby who made it to Lampedusa., it said.

The shipwreck was the latest along the Central Mediterranean migration route, where about 160 Europe-bound migrants have died since the beginning of 2021, the UN agencies said.

In the years since the 2011 uprising that ousted and killed longtime dictator Moammar Qadhafi, war-torn Libya has emerged as the dominant transit point for migrants fleeing war and poverty in Africa and the Middle East.

Smugglers often pack desperate families into ill-equipped rubber boats that stall and founder along the perilous Central Mediterranean route. Over the last several years, hundreds of thousands of migrants have reached Italy either on their own or after being rescued at sea.

Thousands have drowned along the way. Others were intercepted and returned to Libya to fall victim to unspeakable brutality at the hands of traffickers and militias, the UN refugee agency said.

Earlier this week, the UN migration agency said around 3,600 were returned to the North African country since the beginning of 2021.

Published in Dawn, February 25th, 2021

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